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Challenging food insecurity through community action

Empowering women by building capacities and confidence, utilizing existing skills and providing support where necessary and integrating all the farm based activities through recycling, are some of the factors which have brought these poor women in Kerala out of poverty.

Members collectively cultivating vegetables
Members collectively cultivating vegetables

In Kerala, women farmers are intensively involved in the cultivation of food crops such as rice, tubers and vegetables. There was a major shift during the 1970s from subsistence crops, such as rice and yams, to cash crops such as black pepper, coffee, ginger and rubber. Intensive agriculture, coupled with poor soil and water conservation practices, has led to falling agricultural productivity. During the past decade, the growing cost of production together with increased incidence of pest attacks, diseases and falling prices has resulted in a local agricultural crisis leading farmers and allied workers into perpetual penury.

A study conducted by RASTA in two panchayaths (local administrative area) in Wayanad district in 2004 showed that women contribute 90% of the labour in food crops. But, the shift in cultivation from food crops (rice) to cash crops (banana) has resulted in the displacement of women labour. A recent estimate by RASTA shows that, in Wayanad district, women lost nearly 1,500,000 working days per season when the paddy cultivation shrunk to 12,000 ha from 40,000 ha.

The gradual displacement of women from agricultural tasks resulted in increased dependency of women on their spouses for basic economic needs. It also created food insecurity at the household level. In recent years, increased farmer suicides have also resulted in women shouldering responsibilities of managing the house, children’s education and other family needs.

Empowering women

RASTA has been working in Wayanad district since 1987 addressing the problems of rural people especially women, indigenous communities and marginal farmers. Empowering women has been one of the main thrusts of the organization since its inception. It began with mobilizing rural and tribal women to start “Thrift and Credit Groups” as early as in 1990 with the help of RASTA and later on as “Self Help Groups” spread across 12000 poor families in the district. The self-help groups are collective associations of 10-15 women in neighbourhoods, often like-minded, and having similar economic backgrounds etc. They meet once in a week to mobilize savings, discuss and learn about their rights and plan for the future. A strong leadership and collective action evolves among the group members within 2-3 years and this collective strength is often guided towards starting new or alternative livelihood activities for the members.

Over the years we found that the self-help group approach was highly effective for empowering women and addressing the growing problem of food insecurity in villages. Since the primary livelihood sector, agriculture, was facing crisis, RASTA put great emphasis on resolving the situation, by training women farmers in sustainable agriculture production systems, knowledge sharing, field extension services and diversification of crops.

To address the issues of food insecurity and unemployment, a meeting of women farmers was organized. Most of the members suggested starting up something unique in order to tide them over the crisis. Five hundred poor families of tribal and other marginalized sections belonging to the self help groups came forward to be a part of the programme.

Seed exchange-mela

Vegetables contribute a major part of the household food basket. Vegetable farming had ceased several years ago during the shift to cash crops. To revive the activity, a seed exchange mela was organised. A seed exchange mela (festival) is a meeting of women farmers in the village who bring seeds they have and exchange it with other farmers. Only those who have at least one seed with them are allowed to participate.

Thirty groups (300 women farmers) were initially involved in the seed exchange melas. The seed exchange mela (festival) is conducted immediately after the rice harvest in December. After the mela, groups of women (5-10 members) cultivate vegetables collectively. They use organic manures, compost and manually control pests. Only in extreme situations do they use a soap and tobacco mixture – an eco-friendly pest control method. Within one month they start getting yields, first from leafy vegetables and later from other crops.

Women participating in seed mela
Women participating in seed mela

Surplus vegetables are sold directly to the community. This cuts out the middlemen, ensuring higher prices for the women’s group and high quality organic vegetables, free from chemical pesticides, for the village communities. The activity has enhanced the household food availability and reduced dependency on buying food.

During the harvest, the best quality produce is collected for seed material and preserved using traditional methods and shared at the next seed mela. Thus, a tradition is being created to protect and propagate indigenous varieties.

For the first time, there was milk available in these families and this changed the health profile of the members. 

Tending livestock

Around 530 members accessed soft loans of Rs.20,000 each for purchasing cattle. The women were able to obtain loans without any collateral security, as they had approached the bank as a group. Here the group has the liability and the group is the security. This was a great boost to the local economy and for the poor families.

The women were provided hands on training for managing high yielding cows. Since the region is rich in natural resources, there is little dependency on imported feed. Also the farm wastes serve as fodder, thus integrating livestock into crop production.

On an average, a cow produces 15-20 liters of milk per day. The milk is collected by the Milk Cooperative Society, established by MILMA, a public sector milk distribution company.  Women get an income of Rs.600 a day. This is sufficient for meeting the expenses of rearing the cattle as well as for loan repayments. Cattle rearing became a viable income generation programme for these women.

Cattle rearing contributed in many other ways to the families. The dung is used to improve vegetable and paddy cultivation.

As only a small volume of dung was used for composting, the rest was used for biogas production. The farm households got a grant of Rs. 5000 per biogas tank (around 50%) and the remaining amount was raised in terms of labour or by taking a loan from the self help groups.  The installation of biogas plants helped to reduce the use of fire wood as well as the dependency on external energy supplies.  The biogas slurry was recycled as manure for crops.

Reviving the rice production through SRI

Around 40 groups of 5 women have cultivated rice using the system of rice intensification (SRI) method in over 200 acres. This method uses 50% less seeds than conventional methods and 40-50% less water to produce higher yields than conventional systems. Thankamma, a traditional women farmer from Kaniyambetta Panchayath has produced 3500 kg of rice from one acre of land, inspiring many other farmers. The production process is fully organic, since cow dung, compost and the biogas slurry are available. As in the case of vegetables, women were able to sell the surplus rice to other local consumers for a good price.

Rice cultivation has brought back the traditional cropping systems of the past. There is more food available in the house and members sell the surpluses. It has also brought employment opportunities for women especially in the tribal communities. A total of 5800 labour days have been generated through this initiative. Additionally, rice paddy straw was used in mushroom cultivation.

Mushroom cultivation

Since the paddy straw was available as an offshoot of rice cultivation, mushroom cultivation was promoted among the marginal farmers. Around 120 women were trained in mushroom cultivation and were provided with credit assistance from banks for the construction of sheds. Mushroom spawn was distributed from the regional agricultural research station. In two weeks, they were able to sell mushrooms in local markets for Rs300/kg – another successful income generation programme for women.

Conclusion

The success of the programme can be attributed to certain factors like  –  empowering women by building capacities and confidence,  utilizing existing skills and providing support where necessary and integrating all the activities, wherein the wastes or output of one activity becomes the input for the other. The resource recycling has definitely reduced the costs of production and reduced dependency on the external resources.

One of the greatest impacts of this programme has been a tremendous change in the nutritional security and status of the children as well as women of these families. For the first time, there was milk available in these families and this changed the health profile of the members.  There were also other by-products such as cow dung for manure and value added products such as biogas, which have changed the way the farmers look at agriculture inputs.

Most importantly, there is an increase in the self confidence and status of women within the community. Now, local government Panchayat Raj Institution has also adopted this program, across the State.

 

T K Omana
Director,
Rural Agency for Social and Technological Advancement
(RASTA), Kamblakad.P.O.,Wayanad District.,
Kerala – 673122
www.rastaindia.org
E-mail: t.k.omana@gmail.com